There are a number of things golfers are accustomed to hearing on the first tee — "Lead us off," "Nice drive," even "You're still away" — but "Would you like to race the first hole?" isn't one of them.
This invitation came from Chris Smith, a rangy-looking guy who happens to hold the world record at speed golf. He was standing on the first tee at Bandon Preserve, the 13-hole, par-3 course that opened at Oregon's Bandon Dunes Resort on Tuesday. Smith, who once shot 65 in 44 minutes, was challenging me to race him over the Preserve's 95-yard opener. And it wasn't even his first round of the day. He had teed off at 6:45 a.m. and was back at the clubhouse 23 minutes later with an even-par 39.
The only time I've ever run on a golf course was after the drinks cart, but the assembled crowd seemed eager for a race. "You can't say no, can you?" This came from Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes Resort. Looking on serenely at Keiser's side was Bill Coore, the courtly North Carolinian who designed the course with partner Ben Crenshaw and who might fairly be described as the only man in golf without an enemy.
Challenge accepted. Under duress. I negotiated a head start — Smith wasn't allowed to tee off until my ball landed, which it did about 15 feet from the hole. A split second after impact, my 40-year-old carcass bolted from the starting blocks — admittedly more like Carl Pettersson than Carl Lewis — and I claimed a narrow victory.
Smith's presence on opening day speaks volumes about the role of the Preserve, and perhaps to the joy of Bandon Dunes as a whole.
"What do you think this means for golf?" Keiser asked from the first tee, where he and Coore greeted every player on opening day.
It sounded like a deep question, but it wasn't. The answer is simple: fun, often a forgotten factor in golf-course design, but the overriding principle here.
The Preserve is hugely entertaining. The longest shot you'll face is about 175 yards, the shortest less than 70. There are blind shots, curvaceous greens, threatening bunkers, and multiple opportunities for an ace, all in a gusty wind with stunning Pacific Ocean views. It is the ideal spot for a foursome to wind down the day with a couple of beers and a lot of bets.
The course will cost $100 to play, with all proceeds going to a conservation program on this rugged stretch of coastline. The Preserve takes about two hours to navigate and is an easy walk, no small concern for golfers who can't walk 36 a day but who can handle 18 and the Preserve.
The other courses at the resort are reason enough to make the trek to these hinterlands. Pacific Dunes is simply superb, a stunning seaside test that ranks as Golf Magazine's No. 1 publicly accessible course in America.
Old Macdonald, opened in 2010, is as close a facsimile to the Old Course in St. Andrews as seems possible to create, a beguiling examination of strategy and shotmaking, while the original Bandon Dunes course remains a solid test, and a nice reminder of what designer David McLay Kidd was capable of before he started building absurd greens that look like elephant graveyards (see: The Castle Course and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland).
Bandon Trails is a favorite among low-handicaps, and boasts arguably the best set of par 3s on the property, but ranks last on my list thanks to a number of weak holes on the back nine. (None more so than No. 14, a par 4 that is easier to hit in one shot than in two and which I've been quietly campaigning to have blown up for years). Keiser, ever the contrarian, has publicly stated that it's his favorite hole on the property, but no one believes him.
A round at one of Bandon Dunes' four courses costs $230 in peak season. Your second round — and almost everyone plays twice — is half-price. That works out at $172.50 per round for some of the best golf in the nation, rather good value given that many resorts charge more than $300 to play courses that should really be donated back to nature. Play a third round — possible in summer — and it's free.
The 36-a-day routine here explains the one curiosity at Bandon Dunes: in a resort packed with garrulous groups of guys on golf buddy trips, the bars are deathly quiet after 10:30 p.m. It's the equivalent of evangelicals deciding to skip church on Sunday morning — it just seems sinful.
But after walking 36 holes, sometimes in the rain, always in the wind, it's about all the guys can muster to relive their highlights over dinner and a couple of cocktails before succumbing to sleep's dark embrace hours before Leno or Letterman.
This is the life of a Bandonista. If only their wives knew how boring it all is. Then again, for golfers at Bandon, fun is found in other ways. And this week America's best golf destination added yet another reason to visit a place with the most fun boring guys could ever want.